BEVERLY — Will Barnet, who found early inspiration in his hometown of Beverly and went on to become an internationally known artist, died Tuesday at his home in New York City at age 101.
Barnet’s paintings and prints have been displayed in most major museums in the United States. In February, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House.
“For over 80 years, Mr. Barnet has been a constant force in the visual arts world, marrying sophistication and emotion with beauty and form,” the citation said.
Barnet was born in Beverly on May 25, 1911. His father, a Russian immigrant, worked as a machinist at the United Shoe Machinery Corp. Barnet helped his father build his home on Pierce Avenue, where he lived with his parents, brother and two sisters.
Barnet left for New York City at an early age but never forgot his hometown roots. In 1942, he donated a dozen prints to the Beverly Public Library, which named a gallery at the library in his honor and where his works are displayed.
In a handwritten letter to the librarian that year, Barnet said he had been inspired as a boy by devouring the library’s “beautifully illustrated” art books.
“What little success I have achieved is by no means startling, but I have to some degree realized dreams dreamt long ago in our home town of Beverly,” he wrote.
Barnet donated several other prints to the Beverly library over the years, including as recently as this past summer. Librarian Patricia Cirone said the library has the largest collection of Barnet’s works in the world.
Barnet returned often to Beverly over the years to visit family. In 2004, Montserrat College of Art held an exhibition of his work titled “My Father’s House.” The collection included paintings of his family and scenes from Beverly.
In the forward that he wrote for the exhibition catalog, author John Updike, who lived in Beverly, said Barnet’s individual style was shaped in part by the sets he designed for a Japanese play when he was in middle school in Beverly, and by the Asian and Polynesian objects that he saw at what is now the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.
“Summed up so briefly, Barnet’s is a classic and common story of a determined talent’s emergence from a far-from-entirely-barren and unsympathetic provincial environment,” Updike wrote.
Laura Tonelli, the academic dean at Montserrat College and an art historian, said Barnet was a supporter of the college for years, including regular donations to the college’s annual auction.
Barnet received an honorary doctorate from Montserrat in 1992 and served as commencement speaker.
“He was elegant, like his portraits,” Tonelli said. “He was very gracious and a very focused art-maker. Members of the college community had been visiting him regularly in New York the last few years, and he was always busy. He maintained a very, very active life.”
According to his National Medal of Arts citation, Barnet was best known for his graceful depictions of family and personal scenes that are “meticulously constructed of flat planes” and reveal a “lifelong exploration of abstraction, expressionism and geometry.”
Tonelli described Barnet as a “major figure” in the world of art. She said his style could look deceptively simple but was imbued with a classical sense of design.
“He did not respond to trends, and so in some ways his work was not always in the forefront,” Tonelli said. “He established a style and stayed with that style for much of his career. His work wasn’t always in fashion, but it always had tremendous integrity.”
Barnet is survived by his wife and daughter and by three sons from his first marriage.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.